Sitting at the heart of the city’s historical centre is the Parque Centro América, a large square that’s full of interesting historical, cultural and architectural sights. Many of the buildings on the square are worth a closer look, like the Iglesia del Espiritu Santo, for example, which was destroyed by earthquakes but whose stunning front still stands. Most of all, though, the park is a place for Guatemalans to meet and socialise throughout the day and into the night. To experience a slice of life as a local, go down and get involved.
Quetzaltenango offers a compelling alternative to Antigua for Spanish students of all levels. For one thing, it’s usually far cheaper to get tuition – and to stay with a local family – in Xela. Plus, instead of learning in a town that’s set up to cater to tourists, Xela is an authentically Guatemalan city.
Xela’s Natural History Museum, located on the south side of the Parque Centro, makes for an excellent destination on one of the city’s colder, wetter days. The museum has curated an interesting mix of artifacts over the years, including some ancient Mayan objects, a wide range of stuffed animals (often in hunting poses), a collection of old beer labels and much more. Honestly, it all has to be seen to be believed.
For something a little more strenuous, take the short bus ride over to the Volcán de Cerro Quemado, or Burnt Hill Volcano. Towards the top of the path, it’s closer to rock-climbing than walking. The views from the top make it all worth it – not just of the city and mountains, but of the lava fields that surround you.
For just three years, from 1930 to 1933, Quetzaltenango was connected by railway to the Pacific Coast. The line may not have lasted but the train station has, and, up until a few years ago, it was derelict and falling into increasing disrepair. Now the station has been converted into a cultural centre, with displays of art, dance and more. Aside for the regular events, there are three permanent museums. Discover the story of Quetzaltenango’s ill-fated railway, find out how Mayan weaving works, and see works from Guatemala’s top modern artists.
The Ciudad de la Imaginación is a small art gallery and cultural project that aims to promote artists in and around Xela. Situated just up the hill from the centre of town, it’s almost always got an exhibition on that’s showcasing some local art, photography or sculptures. Pick up a copy of the local listings magazine, Xelawho, to see what’s coming up.
Xela isn’t short of nearby volcanoes and mountains to climb. For those after a walk that starts straight from the city centre – that won’t leave them completely breathless and includes some stunning views of the city – Baul is the best bet. The hill looms over the east of the city, just 10 minutes’ walk from the Parque Centro. And, if the views from the top aren’t enough reason to make the trip, there’s also a giant slide.
Part-museum, part-chocolaterie, Café Museo La Luna is one of Xela’s more unique sights. The historical artifacts alone are reason enough to pay this place a visit, with fascinating photographs, toys and decorations that offer a glimpse into Guatemala’s past. However, it’s the hot chocolate that really sets this place apart. They make the chocolate on site, before using it to create a range of mouth-watering drinks.
Weaving is a crucial part of the Mayan way of life, and women in the villages all around Quetzaltenango still use the ancient backstrap method when making textiles. A couple of cooperatives in the city offer free weekly demonstrations, which are well worth a visit for anyone curious about how Mayan clothing is made. Or, for something a little more hands-on, you can also sign up for classes.
Mayans living in the remote villages dotted around Xela are mostly living well below the poverty line, with access to clean water and education by no means guaranteed. For anyone who would like to make a positive contribution during their stay in the city, there are lots of ways to help out. Ask any of the Spanish schools for information on volunteering, or, if you’re after adventure – and can commit to the minimum three-month stay – you can sign up with Quetzaltrekkers, who are always looking for experienced hikers to lead their multi-day treks.